Friday, January 3, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks

With no hangover to recover from, parties to attend, errands to run or chores to do, New Year's Day proved a total "me" day; I slept in late - despite falling asleep early the night before, well before the witching hour of midnight; I putzed around the house for a while, read a book and when I got bored of my own company, I headed off to visit my old friend, the movies, to catch Disney's Saving Mr. Banks starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson. The film focuses on the real-life events surrounding Walt Disney's 20-year struggle to woo author P.L. Travers to grant him rights for a film adaptation of her popular children's novel, "Mary Poppins."

Having promised his young daughters that he would bring their favorite book to the big screen, Walt persevered year after year until in 1961 facing financial struggles Pamela Travers - Mrs. Travers but never Pamela - cedes to Walt's requests and her lawyer/agent's insistence and travels to Los Angeles for a two week visit during which she'll meet with Walt, as well as screenwriters and songwriters to hash out details on the film since she's got final say on every detail including absolutely NO animation (I guess she caved on the penguins), and to sign on the dotted line granting Walt rights to take the Banks off the page and onto film screens everywhere, where it would ultimately become one of our most enduring and beloved children's movies of all time.

Mrs. Travers proves to be a grumpy curmudgeon who finds fault with every note in a song, mustache on a leading man, and even the pears in the hotel gift basket which she chucks into the pool. As Disney struggles to please the uncompromising author, Travers merely offers the statement that the Banks are family as a form of explanation (unfortunately Disney doesn't fully grasp the truth of that statement, yet), and she shudders at their erroneous assumption that Poppins role was to save the children. (You can almost see her wheels turning - if they can't even get that right, how on earth can she entrust them with her most treasured and beloved creation). Weighed down by sad memories of the past, Travers returns home - papers unsigned, but Disney isn't so easily dissuaded and after a stumbled upon revelation he finally hits on the key to the skittish author's acquiescence by looking back on his own troubled and painful childhood and realizing that letting go of the past and its regrets requires more than just a catchy tune.

I wish I could say I loved this film; I had the best intentions to but it proved such a departure from my original expectations that I couldn't reconcile my sentiments between the two and will have to settle instead for admiration for a compelling story and great acting. I hadn't read any reviews so I based my movie going decision strictly on the Disney brand and the actor's names above the title. I went in expecting a lighthearted romp filled with Disney cheer, foot-tappingly catchy tunes and some laughs (it's PG-13, it's Hanks, what else would you expect?), but instead I found the film sad - heartbreakingly so at times - though it does have a few chuckles. It goes without saying that I did not walk out of the theater humming a merry tune or donning a goofy (no pun intended) smile. The movie isn't so much about Mary Poppins as it is about P.L. Travers. It is not so much about the making of a classic film, as it is a sad look at the awful weight of regrets and what ifs adults sometimes carry from their childhood that shape their lives.

The story offers a dual narrative; splitting the scenes between the P.L. Travers Poppins-saga with Disney in Los Angeles which is fun and light and where some of the chuckles come in, but flashes back and forth to Travers' childhood in Australia. An initially winsome tale of a young girl filled with dreams and whimsy and her beloved charming father, Travers Goff (played Colin Farrell) who dotes on her and encourages her to dream, to fly. The illusion of the perfect father quickly fades though as the movie progresses and we see him for what he is, a rootless drunkard who drags his young family from town to town as he loses each job and are somberly privy to the consequences of his actions on those he loves. As the story builds, we are witness to Travers present dilemma but also the memories which haunt her and color her every decision; the disillusionment and heartbreak which shaped the woman she's become - one filled with pain and regret she's yet to let go.

The acting was brilliant, as would be expected given the talent of such stars as Hanks and Thompson. Hanks brings the usual everyman charm he does to most his roles and makes the larger than life persona of Disney more than just a caricature of the man; giving him humor and heart. Thompson strikes the perfect balance in her performance; delivering the snappish lines of the strident woman not willing to bend with a condescending sneer, as well as bringing you to tears as her own tears bear witness to the fragile soul haunted by the past. The supporting cast was equally talented with Farrell offering a standout performance in the flashback storyline and even more so, Annie Rose Buckley as Ginty; there was such substance and weight to her performance, especially for one so young.

I guess the question is; thumbs up, thumbs down; see it or don't see it? Thumbs up and see it. Saving Mr. Banks is a moving and poignant film with memorable and evocative performances, especially from Thompson whom I'd be shocked if she doesn' get an Oscar nomination; but go with your eyes wide-open for what to expect and even though it's Disney, don't bring young kids.